For Saint Stephens United Church of Christ in Merrill, Wis., adopting the local "Food For Kids" program was a giant leap of faith: a leap made easier because of the church's commitment to the UCC 3 Great Loves' Love of Children initiative.
Food For Kids had been started years earlier by the pastor of a nearby Lutheran Church. Saint Stephens had been one of the four churches participating in the program, packing and delivering bags of food to area elementary schools. When the Lutheran pastor retired in 2017, she asked Saint Stephens to take over Food For Kids.
"The program had some funding challenges, and we knew going into this that it would take considerable effort and commitment to raising funds to keep the program operating," says Tina Scott, Saint Stephens' business manager. "After much deliberation, considering all the logistics involved, dreaming about growing the program to meet the needs of all the children in our community — Saint Stephens committed to being the sponsoring organization."
As administrator, Saint Stephens takes on all the operational and administrative expenses — everything but the actual purchase of the food is paid for by the UCC congregation.
"The goal is that every single dollar we ask the community to provide — either as individual donations, businesses sponsoring fund raisers or making donations, organizations within our community, etc. — goes to actually purchase food for the kids," Scott says. "Those donating never have to ask or worry that their money is going to someone's salary or overhead expenses, because the church covers all of that."
How the program works
Each year, parents of students in participating schools whose families are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches receive a letter inviting them to opt in to Food For Kids, which provides nutritious items children take home. Each participating school maintains the records and notifies Food For Kids of the number of children enrolled in the program.
Saint Stephens volunteers purchase the food in bulk, sort it down at the church, coordinate the packing efforts of the other churches, and pack for the school they continue to serve. The church has an entire room dedicated to warehousing the food, and provides space for the other participating churches to pack the bags.
The volunteers from Saint Stephens and the other local churches then deliver the bags to the participating schools in tubs. This enables the teachers to discreetly place the bags in children's backpacks on Friday afternoons. Each food bag includes 14 items — including juice boxes, breakfast foods, ready-to-eat meals and snacks — to provide supplemental food to the child over the weekend, when school meal programs aren't available.
Growing the program
In 2017, Food For Kids served 153 students in four local schools. For the current school year, St. Stephens has expanded the program to include two additional elementary schools, and added another local church to help in the packing and distribution. Food costs for the program in 2017 were about $28,000. During the current school year, that cost may jump to as high as $35,000.
"When we adopted the program, there were three other churches [also] packing bags of food," Scott says. "This year, we simply approached another church and asked them if they would join us, and they embraced the idea."
But that's not all. Many area churches and local church members — including members of Saint Stephens — support Food For Kids with periodic financial donations, adds Scott. "It truly is a wonderful ecumenical outreach, because churches of all denominations can get involved."
Scott says the Merrill community also has embraced Food For Kids. Businesses, community organizations and clubs, from the "Noon Optimists" to area motorcycle groups, bowling clubs, church school classes, and others continue to do fundraisers for the program.
A recent Treasure Sale at the church (that included items donated from area congregations) brought in $3,101. And a summertime Brat Fry (one of Wisconsin's famous bratwurst events) raised almost $900. Other fundraisers are planned throughout the year.
"The response from the community has been wonderful," Scott says. Schools have told Scott how much the program has helped the children and families it serves. "Individuals have shared stories of how this program [has] personally helped their families. It's pretty powerful."
So what's ahead for Food For Kids? Scott says Saint Stephens dreams of the day when all of the children in Merrill are served by the program. "We hope to continue to grow the program to include all of the schools in our community, because no child should ever go hungry," she says. "Once we have all the elementary schools included, we hope to explore options for how to serve middle school and high school students as well, so that we can truly say that no child in our Merrill community will go hungry."
In the end, it's all about living the Gospel message, says the Rev. Kyle Carnes, senior minister. "We take care of those in our community because our faith calls us to do so."